• democracy;
  • European Union;
  • Madison;
  • legitimacy;
  • sovereignty

Debates about the legitimacy of political orders have long turned on the question of how political power should be limited. In the debate about the legitimacy of the European Union (EU), a ‘neo-Madisonian’ vision has emerged that identifies in the multi-level nature of the EU a contemporary version of Madison's argument about the separation of powers and checks and balances. The article situates this account of the EU's legitimacy within the wider trajectory of European integration and argues that these neo-Madisonian scholars make the mistakes of presuming that all limits upon the exercise of power are legitimate and of treating sovereignty and legitimacy as oppositional concepts. By returning to Madison's argument in the Federalist Papers, the article highlights the connection between legitimacy, limited power and the principle of popular sovereignty and the implications of this for how we should think about the EU's legitimacy in the future.